The gun debate in the USA reminds me of something a therapist once told me on a particularly cold and snowy day in Winnipeg, back in the 70s. I was working as a clinical social worker at the time, and was at an all day workshop with William Glasser, the psychiatrist who wrote Reality Therapy. He had trouble getting to the workshop that day as the roads were heavy with snow.
He started off his presentation by telling us how funny people are. He said, “On my way here today, I saw a lot of motorists stuck in the snow. Each one tried to get out by pressing their foot on the accelerator. And what do you think happened?” He didn’t wait for us to answer. “They just got in deeper. Their wheels got caught in ruts. And what did they do then? They pressed their foot harder on the gas. Did they get out? No, they just kept spinning their wheels. And they made the ruts deeper. Now, had they stopped and said, this isn’t working, I should try something different, maybe they would’ve had solved their problem. Instead, they kept doing more of the same.”
William Glasser gave the “spinning the wheels” story to illustrate how we all tend to resort to the same old when we’re trying to solve problems. We are creatures of habit. Even if something no longer works, we keep doing it. Even after the Aurora tragedy and the Newtown massacre, half of America wants to maintain the status quo. They want to ignore the insurmountable evidence that every year, with more and more guns sold, more and more innocent people are getting killed or injured. Rather than connect the dots, their answer is more guns. Just like pressing harder on the accelerator gets you nowhere, only deeper in the rut, the same can be said for buying more and bigger guns.
The NRA (National Rifle Association) and other gun enthusiasts don’t want a cross the board ban on semi-automatic weapons, like the AR-15 that was used in Aurora tragedy or the Bushmaster semi-automatic used in the Newtown school massacre. They also don’t want restrictions on magazine size. Instead they deflect the discussion by bringing up deficiencies in mental health programs or violent video games and movies. The gun advocates are not for universal background checks either, which is surprising as right now, any criminal or nutcase can buy a gun privately or online or at a gun show without a background check. There are more guns in America than people. Many own eight guns and more.
Having worked as a psychiatric social worker both on a psychiatric ward and in a community mental health center, I am well aware of the need to have good mental health services. But improving mental health services will not solve the gun problem. In Aurora, the shooter had accessed mental health services. Even though there was a psychiatrist involved, it’s not always obvious that someone has reached the point where he will do harm to others or himself. If it was, he would’ve been hospitalized for his own safety and/ or for the safety of others.
In the case of the Newtown killer, he had a mother and lived in a small community, and yet his mental illness escaped detection. Granted, he was an odd character, but our society is full of odd characters and most of them do no harm. And what about the recent murders in New Mexico, where a 15 year old shot his own family with guns his father had taught him to use for protection when he was away. Apparently, no one saw that coming. It’s only in hindsight, that we can see the clues. Now authorities are pointing to the 15 year old’s love of video games. But in each of these cases, the common denominator was easy access to big guns, to semi-automatic weapons, guns so powerful that no one could escape their damage.
Today’s gun culture has grown out of the second amendment, passed in 1791, which gives each American under their constitution the right to keep and bear arms. When this right was passed over 200 years ago, it seemed reasonable at the time. The Americans had just overthrown the British and were worried about a government taking them over again. The arms they wanted to bear was a musket, a single shot gun that took some time to load. Not like the semi-assault weapons of today—the ones that the NRA and other second amendment clingers want to have in their homes. How does that even make sense? The American military is the biggest fighting machine in the world. Does the American gun owner believe he can—maybe with the help of others—take down his own government with the arsenal in his home?
Even in Aurora, against one shooter, a gun wielding audience—as some have suggested—could not have prevented the disaster. The shooter was wearing a bulletproof vest. There was bedlam. People were panicking. Anyone trying to bring down the shooter would’ve certainly killed more innocent victims in the process.
This whole gun debate reminds me of another story, one I heard when I recently saw the play Medicine. It’s a one man show, and during it, the playwright and actor, T J Dawe told us about how the keyboard we use today was originally invented for the typewriter. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the keys we use the most on computer keyboards are accessed with our more awkward digits. Why? This configuration of letters was set up to slow down typing in typewriter days, because typing too quickly caused the keys to jam. That meant the typist would have to stop and untangle them before continuing. Back then, setting up the keyboard that way made sense. It no longer does. But will it get changed? No, because we are creatures of habit. No harm done, as keyboards don’t kill, they just make typing awkward. But keeping something that harms us because we are creatures of habit is not only a bad choice, but a dangerous one. Shouldn’t the second amendment’s intent be re-examined in light of the growing carnage from guns today?
The growth of the American gun culture is like the growth of a bacterial culture left untended. It has grown to extraordinary proportions and is out of control. No other civilized democracy is as armed to the teeth as Americans are. Why are they so afraid? Who wins with all this fear mongering? Watching Piers Morgan debate gun control on CNN, you quickly see this is an extremely emotional issue on both sides. Seems to me Americans have to let reason rule, and not emotions. Americans have to decide, guns or kids. Guns or Kids. Guns or Kids. I know what I’d choose. What would you?